Another record low for Arctic sea ice maximum winter extent

Arctic sea ice appears to have reached its annual maximum extent on March 24, and is now the lowest maximum in the satellite record, replacing last year’s record low. This year’s maximum extent occurred later than average. A late season surge in ice growth is still possible. NSIDC will post a detailed analysis of the 2015 to 2016 winter sea ice conditions in early April.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for March 24, 2016 was 14.52 million square kilometers (5.607 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that day. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

On March 24, 2016, Arctic sea ice likely reached its maximum extent for the year, at 14.52 million square kilometers (5.607 million square miles). This year’s maximum ice extent was the lowest in the satellite record, with below-average ice conditions everywhere except in the Labrador Sea, Baffin Bay, and Hudson Bay. The maximum extent is 1.12 million square kilometers (431,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average of 15.64 million square kilometers (6.04 million square miles) and 13,000 square kilometers (5,000 square miles) below the previous lowest maximum that occurred last year. This year’s maximum occurred twelve days later than the 1981 to 2010 average date of March 12. The date of the maximum has varied considerably over the years, occurring as early as February 24 in 1996 and as late as April 2 in 2010.

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of March 27, 2016, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 to 2016 is shown in blue, 2014 to 2015 in green, 2013 to 2014 in orange, 2012 to 2013 in brown, and 2011 to 2012 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray.

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of March 27, 2016, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 to 2016 is shown in blue, 2014 to 2015 in green, 2013 to 2014 in orange, 2012 to 2013 in brown, and 2011 to 2012 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Sea ice extent was below average throughout the Arctic, except in the Labrador Sea, Baffin Bay, and Hudson Bay. However, it was especially low in the Barents Sea. Below average winter ice conditions in the Kara and Barents seas have been a persistent feature in the last several years, while the Bering Sea has overall seen slightly positive trends towards more sea ice during winter.

Below average sea ice extent is in part a result of higher than average temperatures that have plagued the Arctic all winter. Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level from December 2015 through February 2016 were above average everywhere in the Arctic, with hotspots near the Pole and from the Kara Sea towards Svalbard exceeding 6 Celsius degrees (11 degrees Fahrenheit) above average. These higher than average temperatures continued into March, with air temperatures during the first two weeks reaching 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit) above average in a region stretching across the North Pole toward northern Greenland, and up to 12 degrees Celsius (22 degrees Fahrenheit) above average north of Svalbard.

These unusually warm conditions have no doubt played a role in the record low ice extent this winter. Another contributing factor has been a predominance of southerly winds in the Kara and Barents seas that have helped to keep the ice edge northward of its typical position. This area has also seen an influx of warm Atlantic waters from the Norwegian Sea.

There is little correlation between the maximum winter extent and the minimum summer extent—this low maximum does not ensure that this summer will see record low ice conditions. A key factor is the timing of widespread surface melting in the high Arctic. An earlier melt onset is important to the amount of energy absorbed by the ice cover during the summer. If surface melting starts earlier than average, the snow darkens and exposes the ice below earlier, which in turn increases the solar heat input, allowing more ice to melt. With the likelihood that much of the Arctic cover is somewhat thinner due to the warm winter, early surface melting would favor reduced summer ice cover.

Final analysis pending

At the beginning of April, NSIDC scientists will release a full analysis of winter conditions, along with monthly data for March. For more information about the maximum extent and what it means, see the NSIDC Icelights post, the Arctic sea ice maximum.

 

February continues streak of record low Arctic sea ice extent

Arctic sea ice was at a satellite-record low for the second month in a row. The first three weeks of February saw little ice growth, but extent rose during the last week of the month. Arctic sea ice typically reaches its maximum extent for the year in mid to late March.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for February 2016 was 14.2 million square kilometers (5.48 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for February 2016 was 14.22 million square kilometers (5.48 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Arctic sea ice extent for February averaged 14.22 million square kilometers (5.48 million square miles), the lowest February extent in the satellite record. It is 1.16 million square kilometers (448,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average of 15.4 million square kilometers (5.94 million square miles) and is 200,000 square kilometers (77,000 square miles) below the previous record low for the month recorded in 2005.

The first three weeks of February saw little ice growth, but extent rose during the last week of the month primarily due to growth in the Sea of Okhotsk (180,000 square kilometers or 70,000 square miles) and to a lesser extent in Baffin Bay (35,000 square kilometers or 13,500 square miles). Extent is presently below average in the Barents and Kara seas, as well as the Bering Sea and the East Greenland Sea. Extent decreased in the Barents and East Greenland seas during the month of February. In other regions, such as the Sea of Okhotsk, Baffin Bay, and the Labrador Sea, ice conditions are near average to slightly above average for this time of year. An exception is the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which remains largely ice free.

In the Antarctic, sea ice reached its minimum extent for the year on February 19, averaging 2.6 million square kilometers (1 million square miles). It is the ninth lowest Antarctic sea ice minimum extent in the satellite record.

Conditions in context

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of March 1, 2016, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 to 2016 is shown in blue, 2014 to 2015 in green, 2013 to 2014 in orange, 2012 to 2013 in brown, and 2011 to 2012 in purple.

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of March 1, 2016, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 to 2016 is shown in blue, 2014 to 2015 in green, 2013 to 2014 in orange, 2012 to 2013 in brown, and 2011 to 2012 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Figure 2b. These three images show two-week average Arctic sea ice drift data from January through mid-February derived from the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer 2 (AMSR-2). The image on the left shows the period January 1 to 15, the middle image shows January 14 to 31, and the image on the right shows February 1 to 16. ||Images courtesy Alek Petty/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Maryland, data from Centre ERS d'Archivage et de Traitement (CERSAT)/French Institute for Exploration (Ifremer)| High-resolution image

Figure 2b. These three images show two-week average Arctic sea ice drift data from January through mid-February derived from the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer 2 (AMSR-2). The image on the left shows the period January 1 to 15, the middle image shows January 14 to 31, and the image on the right shows February 1 to 16.

Credit: Alek Petty/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Maryland, data from Centre ERS d’Archivage et de Traitement (CERSAT)/French Institute for Exploration (Ifremer)
High-resolution image

NASA and NOAA announced that January 2016 was the ninth straight month of record-breaking high surface temperatures for the globe. In terms of regional patterns, the Arctic stands out, with surface temperatures more than 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1951 to 1980 average. These high temperatures were in part responsible for the record low sea ice extent observed for January. Persistent warmth has continued into February; air temperatures at the 925 hPa level were 6 to 8 degrees Celsius (11 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1981 to 2010 average over the central Arctic Ocean near the pole. The rate of ice growth for February was near average at 19,700 square kilometers (7,600 square miles) per day, compared to 20,200 square kilometers (7,800 square miles) per day for the 1981 to 2010 average.

Atmospheric circulation patterns have also favored low sea ice extent, particularly in the Barents and Kara seas. Ice motion drift data derived from the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer 2 (AMSR2) satellite and provided by the Centre ERS d’Archivage et de Traitement (CERSAT) show that since January 1, there has been cyclonic, or counterclockwise, sea ice motion in the Barents Sea helping to keep sea ice from advancing south. During the second half of January, an anti-cyclonic, or clockwise, circulation pattern developed in the Beaufort Sea, which subsequently strengthened and expanded to include most of the Arctic Ocean. This, combined with high pressure over Greenland and low pressure over Spitsbergen, has favored enhanced ice export out of Fram Strait, helping to flush old, thick ice out of the Arctic Ocean, leaving behind thinner ice that is more apt to melt away in summer. Whether this circulation pattern will continue and set the stage for very low September sea ice extent remains to be seen.

February 2016 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly February sea ice extent for 1979 to 2016 shows a decline of 3.04% per decade.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center| High-resolution image

Figure 3. Monthly February sea ice extent for 1979 to 2016 shows a decline of 3.0 percent per decade.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

February 2016 sea ice extent was the lowest in the satellite record at 14.22 million square kilometers (5.48 million square miles). The linear rate of decline for February is now 3.0 percent per decade.

Record warmth revealed by the AIRS instrument

Figure 4. These two images show February 2016 departures from the 2003 to 2015 average for 925 hPa air temperature (left) and precipitable water (right) as derived from the NASA AIRS instrument.||Images courtesy Linette Boisvert/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.| High-resolution image

Figure 4. These two images show February 2016 departures from the 2003 to 2015 average for 925 hPa air temperature (left) and precipitable water (right) as derived from the NASA AIRS instrument.

Credit: Linette Boisvert/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
High-resolution image

Since 2003, the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) onboard the NASA Aqua satellite has collected daily temperature and humidity profiles globally. Although the record is fairly short, AIRS data can provide insight into recent changes in Arctic climate. February average air temperatures, measured by AIRS at 925 hPa, are around 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 2003 to 2015 average over the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and the central Arctic Ocean. Above-average temperatures are also the rule over the Kara Sea and Northern Siberia (6 degrees Celsius or 11 degrees Fahrenheit above average). Regions with especially higher than average temperatures correspond to regions of low sea ice, demonstrating the role played by heat fluxes from open water areas. For example, the Sea of Okhotsk experienced below-average air temperatures, and also had above-average sea ice extents, whereas the Kara, Barents, and Bering seas and the Gulf of St. Lawrence had higher air temperatures compared to average, which coincides with lower than average sea ice extent.

A similar relationship is seen in the total precipitable water for February 2016. Precipitable water is the amount of water vapor in the atmospheric column totaled from the surface to the top of the troposphere, expressed as kilograms of water per square meter (one kilogram per square meter equals 1 millimeter of water depth). In February, areas with precipitable water between 12 percent (Bering Sea) to 70 percent (Kara Sea) above the 2003 to 2015 February average corresponded to regions with below-average sea ice extent. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas, and with more water vapor in the air, there is a stronger emission of longwave radiation to the surface. Conversely, the observation that above-average amounts of water vapor are found over areas of reduced sea ice extent points to a role of local evaporation, and evaporation is a cooling process that by itself will favor ice growth.

A late freeze-up

Figure 5. This images shows freeze-up anomalies in the Arctic for 2015. Reds indicate areas where freeze-up began later than average and blues indicate freeze-up beginning earlier than average.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, data provided by J. Miller/T. Markus, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center I High-resolution image

Figure 5. This images shows freeze-up anomalies in the Arctic for 2015. Reds indicate areas where freeze-up began later than average and blues indicate freeze-up beginning earlier than average.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, data provided by J. Miller/T. Markus, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
High-resolution image

Sea ice reformed or refroze later than average throughout most of the Arctic, especially in the Kara and Barents seas where the freeze-up happened about two months later than average. Ice was also late to form in the Beaufort, Chukchi, East Siberian, and Laptev seas, between ten and forty days later than average. In contrast, the timing of freeze-up over the central Arctic Ocean near the pole was near average, as was also the case in Baffin Bay and parts of Hudson Bay. When freeze-up happens late, the ice has less time to thicken before the melt season starts, leading to a thinner ice cover that is more prone to melting out in summer.

References

NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Global Land-Ocean Temperature Index in 0.01 degrees Celsius. http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/tabledata_v3/GLB.Ts+dSST.txt.

NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. NASA, NOAA Analyses Reveal Record-Shattering Global Warm Temperatures in 2015. http://www.giss.nasa.gov/research/news/20160120.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Global Analysis – January 2016. https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/sotc/global/201601.

 

January hits new record low in the Arctic

January Arctic sea ice extent was the lowest in the satellite record, attended by unusually high air temperatures over the Arctic Ocean and a strong negative phase of the Arctic Oscillation (AO) for the first three weeks of the month. Meanwhile in the Antarctic, this year’s extent was lower than average for January, in contrast to the record high extents in January 2015.

Overview of conditions

sea ice extent map

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for January 2016 was 13.53 million square kilometers (5.2 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Arctic sea ice extent during January averaged 13.53 million square kilometers (5.2 million square miles), which is 1.04 million square kilometers (402,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average. This was the lowest January extent in the satellite record, 90,000 square kilometers (35,000 square miles) below the previous record January low that occurred in 2011. This was largely driven by unusually low ice coverage in the Barents Sea, Kara Sea, and the East Greenland Sea on the Atlantic side, and below average conditions in the Bering Sea and Sea of Okhotsk. Ice conditions were near average in Baffin Bay, the Labrador Sea and Hudson Bay. There was also less ice than usual in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, an important habitat for harp seals.

Conditions in context

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of February 3, 2016

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of February 3, 2016, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 to 2016 is shown in blue, 2014 to 2015 in green, 2013 to 2014 in orange, 2012 to 2011 in brown, and 2011 to 2012 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Figure 2b. These graphs show average sea level pressure and air temperature anomalies at 925 millibars (about 3,000 feet above sea level) for January 2016. normal.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division| High-resolution image

Figure 2b. These graphs show average sea level pressure and air temperature anomalies at 925 millibars (about 3,000 feet above sea level) for January 2016.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center, courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division
High-resolution image

January 2016 was a remarkably warm month. Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level were more than 6 degrees Celsius (13 degrees Fahrenheit) above average across most of the Arctic Ocean. These unusually high air temperatures are likely related to the behavior of the AO. While the AO was in a positive phase for most of the autumn and early winter, it turned strongly negative beginning in January. By mid-January, the index reached nearly -5 sigma or five standard deviations below average. The AO then shifted back to positive during the last week of January. (See the graph at the NOAA Climate Prediction Web site.)

The sea level pressure pattern during January, which featured higher than average pressure over northern central Siberia into the Barents and Kara sea regions, and lower than average pressure in the northern North Pacific and northern North Atlantic regions, is fairly typical of the negative phase of the AO. Much of the focus by climate scientists this winter has been on the strong El Niño. However, in the Arctic, the AO is a bigger player and its influence often spills out into the mid-latitudes during winter by allowing cold air outbreaks. How the AO and El Niño may be linked remains an active area of research.

January 2016 compared to previous years

extent trend graph

Figure 3. Monthly January ice extent for 1979 to 2016 shows a decline of 3.2% per decade.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

The monthly average January 2016 sea ice extent was the lowest in the satellite record, 90,000 square kilometers (35,000 square miles) below the previous record low in 2011. The next lowest extent was in 2006. Interestingly, while 2006 and 2011 did not reach record summer lows, they both preceded years that did, though this may well be simply coincidence.

The trend for January is now -3.2% per decade. January 2016 continues a streak that began in 2005 where every January monthly extent has been less than 14.25 million square kilometers (5.50 million square miles). In contrast, before 2005 (1979 through 2004), every January extent was above 14.25 million square kilometers.

Predicting decadal trends in Arctic winter sea ice cover

sea ice change graphic

Figure 4. The map shows areas of the Arctic where sea ice models predicted ice gain and loss for 2007 to 2017

Credit: S. Yeager et al.
High-resolution image

Observations show an increase in the rate of winter sea ice loss in the North Atlantic sector of the Arctic up until the late 1990s followed by a slowdown in more recent years. The observed trend over the period 2005 to 2015 is actually positive (a tendency for more ice). In a paper recently published in Geophysical Research Letters, scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) show that the Community Earth System Model (CESM) was able to predict this period of winter ice growth in the North Atlantic. The study further suggests that in the near future, sea ice extent in this part of the Arctic is likely to remain steady or even increase (Figure 4). The ability to predict the winter sea ice extent in this region is related to the ability of the model to capture the observed variability in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (MOC), an ocean circulation pattern that brings warm surface waters from the tropics towards the Arctic. When the MOC is strong, more warm water is brought towards the North Atlantic sector of the Arctic, helping to reduce the winter ice cover. When it is weak, less warm water enters the region and the ice extends further south. However, while there is an indication that the MOC may be weakening, this winter so far has seen considerably less ice than average in the North Atlantic sector.

References

Yeager, S. G., A. R. Karspeck, and G. Danabasoglu. 2015. Predicted slowdown in the rate of Atlantic sea ice loss. Geophysical Research Letters, 42, 10,704–10,713, doi:10.1002/2015GL065364.

Correction

On February 8, 2016, a reader called our attention to contradictory sentences in our post. We have corrected the erroneous sentence in the section January 2016 compared to previous years. The sentence used to read “The monthly average January 2016 sea ice extent was the lowest in the satellite record, 110,000 square kilometers (42,500 square miles) less than the previous record low in 2011.” We’ve corrected it to “The monthly average January 2016 sea ice extent was the lowest in the satellite record, 90,000 square kilometers (35,000 square miles) below the previous record low in 2011.” as stated in the section Overview of conditions.

2015 in review

December ended with Arctic sea ice extent tracking between one and two standard deviations below average, as it did throughout the fall. This caps a year that saw the lowest sea ice maximum in February and the fourth lowest minimum in September. In Antarctica, December sea ice extent was slightly above average but far below the exceptionally large ice extents recorded for December 2013 and 2014. A slow-down in the rate of Antarctic sea ice growth in July was followed by near-average extents in the subsequent months. The first week of 2016 has seen very slow ice growth in the Arctic.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for December 2015 was 12.3 million square kilometers (4.74 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for December 2015 was 12.3 million square kilometers (4.74 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Sea ice extent for December 2015 averaged 12.3 million square kilometers (4.74 million square miles), the fourth lowest December extent in the satellite record. This is 780,000 square kilometers (301,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average for the month, and 260,000 square kilometers (100,000 square miles) above the record low for December recorded in the year 2010. The rate of sea ice growth slowed slightly through the month and nearly ceased advancing in the first days of the new year, perhaps related to a period of unusual warmth (see below). The ice is currently tracking near two standard deviations below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average. Sea ice extent is well below average in the Bering, Okhotsk, and Barents seas, partly balanced by slightly above average extent in Baffin Bay.

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of January 5, 2016, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 to 2016 is shown in blue, 2014 to 2015 in green, 2013 to 2014 in orange, 2012 to 2013 in brown, and 2011 to 2012 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Sea Ice Index data.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of January 5, 2016, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 to 2016 is shown in blue, 2014 to 2015 in green, 2013 to 2014 in orange, 2012 to 2013 in brown, and 2011 to 2012 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Figure 2b. These graphs show average sea level pressure and air temperature anomalies at 925 mb (about 3,000 feet above sea level) for December 2015.||Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA Earth

Figure 2b. These graphs show average sea level pressure and air temperature anomalies at 925 millibars (about 3,000 feet above sea level) for December 2015.

Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division
High-resolution image

Arctic sea ice growth for December averaged 65,000 square kilometers (25,000 square miles) per day compared to the long-term average of 64,000 square kilometers (24,700 square miles) per day. Cool conditions at the 925 hPa level (2 to 4 degrees Celsius or 4 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit below average) existed in Baffin Bay, the Alaskan North Slope, and parts of eastern Siberia. A broad area of Europe and western Russia, including the northern Barents Sea, saw temperatures as much as 4 to 8 degrees Celsius (7 degrees to 14 degrees Fahrenheit) above average at the 925 hPa level. Conditions were also fairly warm over the central Arctic Ocean, north of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Sea level pressure was below average over much of the Arctic, especially from the northern North Atlantic to the Barents Sea and central Russia, and from the Bering Sea and south along the Canadian Pacific coast (7.5 to 12 millibars below average). This is consistent with the positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation through most of the month, a pattern that has persisted since the end of October.

December 2015 compared to previous Decembers

Figure 3. Monthly December ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a decline of 3.4% per decade.||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center| High-resolution image

Figure 3. Monthly December ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a decline of 3.4% per decade.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Arctic sea ice extent averaged for December 2015 was the fourth lowest in the satellite record. Through 2015, the linear rate of decline for December extent is 3.4% per decade, or -44,200 square kilometers (-17,000 miles) per year.

 

2015 in review

The year will be remembered for three major events in sea ice extent: the lowest Arctic maximum in the satellite record, the fourth lowest Arctic minimum in the satellite record, and a return to average levels for Antarctic sea ice extent after more than two years of record and near-record highs.

The record-low Arctic maximum occurred on February 25, 2015 and was among the earliest seasonal maxima in the 37-year satellite record. It was likely a result of very warm conditions in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Barents Sea (4 degrees Celsius or 7 degrees Fahrenheit above average), and low ice extent in the Bering Sea in March (when the maximum would more typically occur). These climate conditions were related to an unusual jet stream pattern as discussed in our April 7, 2015 post.

The fourth lowest Arctic minimum occurred on September 11, 2015 and was likely a consequence of very warm conditions in July and an increasingly young and thin ice cover. The thinner ice is consistent with a tendency in recent years for large polynyas that appear in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in late summer. Although measurements by the CryoSat-2 satellite indicated that Arctic sea ice was thicker in 2015 compared to pre-2012 thicknesses, the ice behaved as though it was still quite thin.

From February 2013 through June 2015, Antarctic sea ice was at record or near-record daily extents. Antarctic sea ice set consecutive record winter maxima in 2012, 2013 and 2014. (Contrary to 2013 and 2014, autumn and spring conditions in 2012 were near-average.) But during this year’s austral mid-winter period, Antarctic sea ice growth slowed. Since then, extent in the Southern Hemisphere has generally been slightly above average. Climate effects from the building El Niño likely caused the shift during austral mid-winter. A strong El Niño is associated with a change in the position and strength of a major low pressure pattern near West Antarctica, called the Amundsen Sea Low. Weakening of the Amundsen Sea Low, and related impacts elsewhere around the ice edge in Antarctica, tend to reduce ice extent in the Ross Sea, eastern Weddell Sea, and elsewhere around Antarctica except near the Antarctic Peninsula.

The longer view

This graph shows sea ice concentration trends in the Arctic and the Antarctic for March to September for the years 1979 to 2015. Sea Ice Index data. About the data||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 4. This graph shows sea ice concentration trends in the Arctic and the Antarctic for March to September for the years 1979 to 2015. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

The satellite passive microwave record for sea ice now spans more than 37 years. As we have documented, clear downward trends characterize Arctic sea ice extent and concentration in all months, while somewhat less emphatic upward trends characterize Antarctic sea ice extent and concentration. A look at the geographic distribution of trends for the seasonal maximum and minimum periods provides insight into how the polar regions are changing. During the Arctic maximum, declines in extent and concentration are pronounced in the Barents Sea and Sea of Okhotsk, but ice cover has increased slightly in the Bering Sea. During the Arctic summer minimum, all areas show negative trends.

Antarctica presents a more mixed picture. During the Antarctic summer minimum, ice cover is increasing around much of the coastline from the Weddell Sea eastward to the western Ross Sea, but is declining sharply in the eastern Ross, Amundsen, and southern Bellingshausen seas. Winter ice cover in Antarctica is characterized by increases in the northern Ross Sea and the Indian Ocean sectors, and decreases in the northwestern Weddell Sea and the region south of Australia.

Ringing in the New Year with a brief polar heat wave

Figure 5. These graphs show average sea level pressure and air temperature anomaly at 925 mb (an altitude of about 3,000 feet) for 30 and 31 December, 2015.

Figure 5. These graphs show average sea level pressure and air temperature anomalies at 925 millibars (about 3,000 feet above sea level) for 30 and 31 December, 2015. The graphs are the average of two days, so the extremes in air pressure and temperature during this period are not shown.

Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Physical Sciences Division
High-resolution image

An exceptional weather event during the last days of the year brought a heat wave with surface air temperatures up to 23 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit) above average in the far north, and a brief period when surface temperatures at the North Pole approached or perhaps even exceeded the freezing mark. A temperature of +0.7 degrees Celsius was briefly recorded by a buoy weather station near the North Pole on December 30, 2015. The event was linked to the combination of a very strong low pressure system near Iceland and a somewhat less intense low pressure system located near the North Pole. This was associated with an amplified trough at 500 hPa over the northern North Atlantic and a pronounced ridge of high pressure at 500 hPa to the east over central Europe, extending into the Kara Sea. This created a strong, deep inflow of warm, moist air into the Arctic Ocean’s high latitudes. The low near Iceland strengthened rapidly in the last days of December, reaching a minimum pressure of 935 millibars, equivalent to a hurricane. While the event was remarkable and may account for the slow ice growth during the first few days of January 2016, it was short lived and is unlikely to have any long-term effects on the sea ice cover.

Further reading

Tilling, R. L., A. Ridout, A. Shepherd, D. J. Wingham. 2015. Increased Arctic sea ice volume after anomalously low melting in 2013. Nature Geoscience 8, 643–646, doi:10.1038/ngeo2489.

Thompson, A. “What happened to the Polar Vortex?” ClimateCentral.com. http://www.climatecentral.org/news/what-happened-to-the-polar-vortex-19866?

A variable rate of ice growth

The rate of ice growth for the first half of November 2015 was quite rapid, but the pace of ice growth slowed during the second half of the month, only to increase again at the end of the month. Throughout the month, sea ice extent remained within two standard deviations of the 1981 to 2010 average.

Overview of conditions

sea ice extent map

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for November 2015 was 10.06 million square kilometers (3.88 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Arctic sea ice extent for November 2015 averaged 10.06 million square kilometers (3.88 million square miles), the sixth lowest November in the satellite record. This is 910,000 square kilometers (351,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average extent, and 230,000 square kilometers (89,000 square miles) above the record low monthly average for November that occurred in 2006. At the end of the month, extent was well below average in both the Barents Sea and the Bering Strait regions. Extent was above average in eastern Hudson Bay, but below average in the western part of the bay.

Conditions in context

sea ice extent graph

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of November 30, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 is shown in blue, 2014 in green, 2013 in orange, 2012 in brown, and 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Air temperatures at the 925 millibar level were above average over nearly all of the Arctic Ocean; the area north of the Barents Sea, between Svalbard and the Taymyr Peninsula, was unusually warm (6 to 8 degrees Celsius, or 11 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit above average). Elsewhere, temperatures at the 925 millibar level were 1 to 4 degrees Celsius (2 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit) above average. NSIDC uses the 925 millibar temperature (about 3,000 feet above the surface) instead of the surface temperature because the 925 millibar temperature provides a better measure of overall warmth of the lower part of the atmosphere. From autumn through spring, the temperature at the surface can be greatly affected by the presence or absence of ice, while during summer, the surface temperature over ice will stay very close to the melting point.

air temperature and pressure anomaly plots

Figure 2b. The plot at left shows Arctic air temperature anomaly (difference from the 1981 to 2010 average) for November 2015 in degrees Celsius, at the 925 millibar level. Reds and yellows indicate higher than average temperatures for this month. The plot at right shows Arctic sea level pressure anomaly (difference from the 1981 to 2010 average) in millibars for November 2015. Sea level pressures were higher than average (red colors) over northern Eurasia, and lower than average (purples) over the Arctic Ocean and northern North Atlantic. This led to strong winds from the south and east over the region north of the Barents Seas, contributing to high temperatures in the area (observed at the 925 millibar level).

Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division
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The unusual warmth at the 925 millibar level north of the Barents Sea is related to an atmospheric circulation pattern featuring unusually high sea level pressure centered over northern Eurasia and unusually low pressure centered over the Arctic Ocean and northern North Atlantic. The strong pressure gradient (difference in pressure) between the areas of high and low pressure led to strong (and apparently warm) winds from the south. Open water in this area also extends unusually far to the north; while this likely contributed to above average temperatures even as high as the 925 millibar level, the wind pattern itself likely also helped to keep the ice from advancing south.

November 2015 compared to previous years

sea ice trend graph

Figure 3. Monthly November ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a decline of 4.7% per decade.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Arctic sea ice extent averaged for November 2015 was the sixth lowest in the satellite data record. Through 2015, the linear rate of decline for November extent is 4.7% per decade.

The average rate of ice growth for November 2015 was 29,800 square kilometers per day (11,500 square miles per day). However, this value averages out the rather rapid growth rate during the first half of the month with a much slower rate during the second part of the month and rapid growth near its end.

Loitering of the retreating sea ice edge in the Arctic seas

ice edge map

Figure 4. This image shows the daily average ice edge (thin black contours) for every day from March 13 to September 23, 2012. Constant ice edge retreat would produce equidistant contours through the retreat season. Instead, the contours point to areas of rapid retreat (where the contours are far apart, e.g., the central Amerasian Basin) and other areas where the ice edge retreat has stalled, or “loitered” (where the contours are over-plotting on top of themselves, producing darker areas, e.g., the Beaufort Sea). Some areas are prone to loitering in most years (north Baffin Bay; the east Beaufort, north Chukchi, Laptev, and Barents seas) and others are unlikely to see loitering behavior (west Beaufort, east Siberian seas).

Credit: M. Steele and W. Ermold, University of Washington
High-resolution image

A recent paper by colleagues M. Steele and W. Ermold of the University of Washington, in press with Journal of Geophysical Research Oceans, provides insight into pauses that are often observed in summer sea ice retreat. On some days, the ice in a region is observed to retreat at a rapid pace, while on others it hardly moves at all. Steele and Ermold term this stationary behavior “ice edge loitering.” They find that loitering occurs through interaction between surface winds and warm sea surface temperatures in areas from which the ice has already retreated. When ice retreat in a particular region happens early enough in the melt season, the water warms above the freezing point from being in contact with warmer and and from sunshine. If winds later in the season push the ice floes into the warmed ocean area, the ice floes will melt until that surface layer reaches the freezing point. Thus while individual ice floes are moving, the ice edge as a whole appears to remain fairly stationary. The time scale of loitering (typically, 4 to 7 days) is naturally tied to the typical time scale of passing weather systems.

Steele and Ermold argue that loitering likely has important effects on both physical and biological conditions at the ice edge during the summer. Consider an ice edge that retreats at a constant rate through the spring and summer. In this case, air/ice/ocean conditions remain fairly constant along the ice edge, simply translating northward with the ice edge through the summer. By comparison, loitering induces persistent melting and thus changes in sea ice morphology, enhances ocean stratification, reduces upwelling of nutrients, and leads to changes in the atmospheric boundary layer. If the wind then shifts and allows rapid northward ice retreat, what happens to the area of loitering that has been left behind? And what are the conditions within the rapidly retreating ice edge? These are questions for future studies.

Comparisons between observed and modeled September sea ice extent

model comparison graph

Figure 4. This figure shows projected and hindcasted September sea ice extent (colors and shading) for climate models participating in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment, along with observations (black line). The projections are for four scenarios of greenhouse gas concentrations for the future (starting in 2006), termed Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) that relate to the radiative forcing at the top of the atmosphere that could occur at the year 2100. The shading indicates the one standard deviation range in the hindcasts and projections.

Credit: J. Stroeve and A. Barrett, National Snow and Ice Data Center
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A paper accepted for publication by NSIDC scientist Stroeve and colleagues includes model hindcasts and projections of September sea ice extent and comparisons with observed extent. The hindcasts and projections are from the global climate models that participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 5th Assessment, and the observations include data that extend the record back to 1953.

The extent projections are shown for four different scenarios of future greenhouse gas growth (starting in 2005), termed Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs). The RCPS relate to the radiative forcing at the top of the atmosphere that could occur at the year 2100. RCP 8.5 assumes a vigorous increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, while RCP 2.6 assumes a modest initial growth, followed by a reduction in concentrations. The shaded areas indicate the one standard deviation range of the sea ice extents projected by each model and the hindcasts.

The figure indicates that at least for the next few decades, which greenhouse gas scenario that becomes our reality is not especially important (there is much overlap between the projections). Instead, the simulated sea ice evolution is more strongly determined by both the natural variability in Arctic climate and by ongoing forcing from the current greenhouse gas content of the atmosphere. Only in the middle and later part of the 21st century do the differences in the greenhouse gas concentration from the different scenarios become important, and even then, there is a large range in projections from the different models for the same RCP. If our future climate and greenhouse forcing follows RCP 2.6, September ice extent may begin to stabilize by around the middle of the century. Figures like this are useful to policy makers negotiating climate treaties at the Paris 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference.

References

Steele, M. and W. Ermold. 2015. Loitering of the retreating sea ice edge in the Arctic Seas. J. Geophys. Res. Oceans, in press. doi:10.1002/2015JC011182.

Stroeve, J. and D. Notz. 2015. Insights on past and future sea-ice evolution from combining observations and models. Global and Planetary Change, in press. doi:10.1016/j.gloplacha.2015.10.011.

Winter is coming to the Arctic

While Arctic sea ice extent is increasing, total ice extent remains below average, tracking almost two standard deviations below the long-term average.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for October 2015 was 7.72 million square kilometers (2.98 million square miles).

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for October 2015 was 7.72 million square kilometers (2.98 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Arctic sea ice extent for October 2015 averaged 7.72 million square kilometers (2.98 million square miles), the sixth lowest October in the satellite record. This is 1.19 million square kilometers (460,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average extent, and 950,000 square kilometers (367,000 square miles) above the record low monthly average for October that occurred in 2007.

Conditions in context

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of November 2, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years.

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of November 2, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 is shown in blue, 2014 in green, 2013 in orange, 2012 in brown, and 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Air temperatures at the 925 millibar level were 4 to 5 degrees Celsius (7 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the central Arctic, extending towards Fram Strait. This appears to be due to unusually low pressure over northwest Greenland and higher pressures over the Tamyr Peninsula and Scandinavia, which funneled warm air from the south into the central Arctic Ocean. Coastal regions were generally 1 to 3 degrees Celsius (2 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than average.

October 2015 compared to previous years

Figure 3. Monthly October ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a decline of 6.9%

Figure 3. Monthly October ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a decline of 6.9% per decade.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Through 2015, the October sea ice extent has declined 6.9% per decade over the satellite record.

New sea ice thickness information back for the winter

Figure 4a. This image from CryoSat-2 shows thin ice (less than 1 meter (3.28 feet) over a wide area north of Greenland.||Credit: Center for Polar Observation and Modeling (CPOM) at University College London| High-resolution image

Figure 4a. This image from CryoSat-2 shows thin ice (less than 1 meter, or 3 feet, thick) over a wide area north of Greenland.

Credit: Center for Polar Observation and Modeling (CPOM) at University College London
High-resolution image

Figure 4b. This image from the European Space Agency's Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) satellite shows sea ice thickness in the Arctic Ocean, including north and east of Greenland.||Credit: University of Hamburg Integrated Climate Data Center| High-resolution image

Figure 4b. This image from the European Space Agency’s Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) satellite shows sea ice thickness over the Arctic Ocean.

Credit: University of Hamburg Integrated Climate Data Center
High-resolution image

In recent years, two European Space Agency (ESA) satellites, CryoSat-2 and SMOS (Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity), have been providing information on sea ice thickness. Thickness information is valuable for assessing the overall condition of the sea ice cover. The sensors on these satellites cannot determine thickness during the summer melt season, but now that freeze-up has begun, information is again available.

CryoSat-2, launched in 2010, is a radar altimeter, which measures the height of the ice cover above the sea surface. Used with additional information on snow cover and its density, the height information can be converted into estimates of ice thickness. The Center for Polar Observation and Modeling (CPOM) at University College London has again started providing near-real-time maps of sea ice thickness from CryoSat-2.

While these maps are valuable in providing near-real-time thickness estimates, converting the satellite measurements into thickness involves complex processing and there are many uncertainties. For example, Figure 4a depicts thin ice (less than 1 meter [3 feet]) over a wide area north of Greenland, an area where wind and ocean current patterns push the ice against the coast forming thick ridges and an extremely rough surface. This area has been shown by other studies to have some of the thickest sea ice in the Arctic, often exceeding 4 meters (13 feet). This ridging may have cause the difficulty in the current mapping.

CryoSat-2 also has difficulty retrieving thickness in very thin sea ice regions, resulting in no thickness values reported at the outer edge of the ice cover. SMOS is a microwave imaging radiometer that measures microwave brightness temperature at a range that is sensitive to thin ice (1.4 gigahertz). These data are also now available in near-real-time at the University of Hamburg Integrated Climate Data Center. SMOS cannot estimate thickness beyond 1 meter (3.28 feet) at most and often not beyond 0.5 meters (1.64 feet). While the map shows a wide region of 1 meter-thick ice, it is important to realize that this is just the maximum allowable value and in reality there is thicker ice over much of the region. However, SMOS provides valuable information on the coverage of thin ice during the winter ice growth season. Ideally, a blended CryoSat-2/SMOS product will provide more comprehensive information on thickness.

A large ozone hole over the Antarctic

Figure 5. The image above shows the ozone hole over Antarctica on October 2, 2015 when it had reached its largest single-day area for the year.

Figure 5. The image above shows the ozone hole over Antarctica on October 2, 2015 when it had reached its largest single-day area for the year, spanning 28.2 million square kilometers (10.9 million square miles). Data are from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on the NASA Aura satellite and the Ozone Monitoring and Profiler Suite (OMPS) on the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite.

Credit: NASA Earth Observatory, Ozone Hole Watch
High-resolution image

While sea ice in Antarctica is near average, the ozone hole over the continent grew relatively large during the austral winter. This goes against the expected trend towards a smaller ozone hole since the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) was banned in 1996. The size of the hole in a given year depends on several factors, including temperatures in the high altitude stratosphere. Temperatures in the Antarctic stratosphere were low this year, aiding chemical processes that destroy ozone. For more information on this year’s ozone hole see this NASA Earth Observatory feature.

 

Antarctic sea ice at its 2015 maximum

Antarctic sea ice appears to have reached its annual maximum extent on October 6. The maximum occurred relatively late compared to past years. In contrast to the past three years, the 2015 maximum did not set a new record high for the period of satellite observations, but was nevertheless slightly above the 1981 to 2010 average.

Overview of conditions

sea ice extent image

Figure 1. Antarctic sea ice extent for October 6, 2015 was 18.83 million square kilometers (7.24 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that day. The black cross indicates the geographic South Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Antarctic sea ice extent reached its likely maximum for the year, at 18.83 million square kilometers (7.24 million square miles) on October 6, 2015. This year’s maximum was the sixteenth highest in the 35-year record. It was 120,000 square kilometers (46,000 square miles) above the average maximum daily extent computed over the 1981 to 2010 period of 18.71 million square kilometers (7.19 million square miles), and 1.33 million square kilometers (514,000 square miles) below the record maximum set in 2014. The date of the maximum was quite late in comparison to the 35-year satellite record. Only one year, 2002, has had a later maximum (October 12).

At the date of the 2015 maximum, Antarctic sea ice extent was greater than average in the Antarctic Peninsula region, the Weddell Sea, and the Wilkes Land coast area; and below average in the Ross Sea and Indian Ocean sectors.

Conditions in context

extent time series

Figure 2. The graph above shows Antarctic sea ice extent as of October 13, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 is shown in blue, 2014 in green, 2014 in orange, 2012 in brown, and 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
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temperature and pressure plots

Figure 3. Panel (a) shows sea level air pressure anomaly for the Southern Ocean region, August 1 to September 30, 2015. Panel (b) shows air temperature anomaly for the Southern Ocean region, August 1 to September 30, at the 925 millibar level (approximately 1,600 feet altitude).

Credit: NOAA ESRL Physical Sciences Division
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concentration anomaly images

Figure 4. The images compare Antarctic sea ice concentration for Septembers during two strong El Niño events (2015, left; 1997, right) to 1981 to 2010 averages. Colors show percent difference from average sea ice concentration surrounding Antarctica. Oranges and reds indicate concentrations higher than average; greens and blues indicate concentrations lower than average.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

As recently as July 12, Antarctic sea ice extent was at a record daily high extent for the satellite period of observations. For much of early 2015, Antarctic sea ice extent was either slightly above or slightly below the levels seen on the same date in 2014, the record high year. However, beginning in mid-July, the growth rate for Antarctic sea ice slowed significantly, causing the 2015 maximum extent to be only the sixteenth highest in the record.

It is likely that this slowing of late-winter ice growth is related in part to the build-up of the El Niño conditions. El Niño occurs when a large area of the surface waters in the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean warms, and it has widespread effects on weather patterns. In the Southern Ocean, El Niño conditions are typically associated with a weakening of the Amundsen Sea Low, a persistent region of low air pressure in the southernmost Pacific sector of the Antarctic coast (Raphael et al., 2015). Air pressure in the Amundsen Sea region for the months of August and September was higher than average, indicating a weakening of the low-pressure tendency in the region. Higher-than-average air pressure was also observed in the Indian Ocean sector. These regions saw reduced sea ice growth and even local sea ice retreat as the austral winter progressed, and areas of higher-than-average temperatures near the ice edge.

Patterns of sea ice concentration around Antarctica (the deviation from average ice concentration) for El Niño years show a similar pattern, with more ice near the Peninsula.

References

Raphael, M. N., G. J. Marshall, J. Turner, R. Fogt, D. Schneider, D. A. Dixon, J. S. Hosking, J. M. Jones, and W. R. Hobbs. 2015. The Amundsen Sea Low: Variability, change and impact on Antarctic climate. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 2015, doi:10.1175/BAMS-D-14-00018.1.

2015 melt season in review

The Arctic melt season has ended and sea ice extent is now increasing after reaching the fourth lowest minimum on record, on September 11. Sea ice extent in Antarctica has not yet reached its seasonal maximum.

Overview of conditions

sea ice extent image

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for September 2015 was 4.63 million square kilometers (1.79 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Following the seasonal daily minimum of 4.41 million square kilometers (1.70 million square miles) that was set on September 11, which was the fourth lowest in the satellite record, Arctic sea ice has started its cycle of growth. Arctic sea ice extent averaged for the month of September 2015 was 4.63 million square kilometers (1.79 million square miles), also the fourth lowest in the satellite record. This is 1.87 million square kilometers (722,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average extent, and 1.01 million square kilometers (390,000 square miles) above the record low monthly average for September that occurred in 2012. As of this writing, Antarctica’s winter maximum has not yet occurred, but is anticipated within several days.

Conditions in context

sea ice extent graph

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of October 5, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 is shown in blue, 2014 in green, 2013 in orange, 2012 in brown, and 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Note: This graph was updated to show the most recent years, in order to be consistent with our monthly posts. Sea Ice Index data.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

For two weeks following the minimum extent on September 11, air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 3,000 feet above the surface) were 2 to 4 degrees Celsius (4 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit) lower than average in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, helping foster ice growth in those regions. Elsewhere over the Arctic Ocean, there has been fairly little ice growth, in part due to near average to slightly above average air temperatures. Both the Northern Sea Route and Roald Amundsen’s route through the Northwest Passage appeared to remain free of ice at the end of the month. The deeper northern route through Parry Channel, which consists of M’Clure Strait, Barrow Strait, and Lancaster Sound, never completely cleared of ice.

September 2015 compared to previous years

extent trend graph

Figure 3. Monthly September ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a decline of 13.4% per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Through 2015, the linear rate of decline for September Arctic ice extent over the satellite record is 13.4% per decade. The nine lowest September ice extents over the satellite record have all occurred in the last nine years.

Conditions leading to this year’s minimum

ice fraction and age maps

Figure 4a. The map at left shows multiyear ice fraction in mid-April derived from ASCAT, and the corresponding map at right shows ice age. ASCAT image courtesy of R. Kwok, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Ice age image derived from data provided by M. Tschudi, University of Colorado Boulder.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
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air temperature graphs

Figure 4b. The graphs show Arctic ocean air temperatures for May, June, July, and August at the 925 hPa level, ranked according to year from lowest (in blue colors) to highest (in red colors). Ranking of 2015 is given in yellow.

Credit: D. Slater, National Snow and Ice Data Center
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sst maps

Figure 4c. The maps show Arctic sea surface temperature (SST) and anomaly in degrees Celsius, for September 2015. The image at left shows average temperature, with reds indicating higher temperatures and blues indicating lower temperatures. The map at right shows temperature anomaly, compared to the 1982 to 2006 average. Reds and oranges indicate higher than average temperatures, and blues lower than average. The grey line indicates the sea ice edge. SSTs are from from the NCDC OIv2 “Reynolds” data set, a blend of satellite (AVHRR) and in situ data designed to provide a “bulk” or “mixed layer” temperature. Ice edge is from NSIDC near real time passive microwave data.

Credit: M. Steele, Polar Science Center/University of Washington
High-resolution image

The summer melt season began earlier than average. The maximum winter extent, reached on February 25, 2015, was also the lowest recorded over the period of satellite observations. However, a relatively large amount of multiyear ice was transported into the southern Beaufort and Chukchi seas during the winter, as documented by images of multiyear ice fraction derived from the Advanced Scatterometer (ASCAT) instrument on the METOP-A satellite (Figure 4a). The corresponding ice age image shows that the multiyear ice largely consisted of floes that had survived several melt seasons, indicating that it was fairly thick. Thick ice is more difficult to melt out during summer than thinner ice; if not for this thicker ice, the September minimum extent would likely have been lower.

Melt onset began earlier than average in the Beaufort Sea, especially along the coast of Canada, leading to early development of open water in this area. Melt also began earlier than is usual in the Kara Sea, fostering early retreat of sea ice in the region. However, air temperatures at the 925 hPa level during May and June for the Arctic ocean region were not particularly high, ranking as the 26th and 13th warmest since 1979 (Figure 4b). As a result, although the winter maximum extent was the lowest in the satellite record, ice extent at the end of June was only the third lowest.

The pace of seasonal ice loss picked up rapidly in July, with Arctic ocean region temperatures at the 925 hPa level reaching the second highest during the satellite record (with 2007 ranked as the highest). Daily ice loss rates averaged 101,800 square kilometers (39,300 square miles) per day, the fourth largest rate of ice loss recorded for the month. Nevertheless, sea ice was slow to melt out of Baffin Bay and Hudson Bay, resulting in a July average extent for 2015 that was the eighth lowest on record. By the end of July however, the fast pace of ice loss during the month resulted in 2015 extent falling within 550,000 square kilometers (212,000 square miles) of the level recorded in 2012, and tracking below the levels recorded for 2013 and 2014. By the middle of August, the difference in extent between 2012 and 2015 had dropped to less than 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles), hinting at the possibility that this year would rank among the lowest minimum extents recorded. However, temperatures for August were not particularly warm, and extent ended up fourth lowest.

Higher than average Arctic sea surface temperatures dominated the Arctic Ocean in September 2015 (Figure 4c), though not as high as seen in 2007 or 2012. Early melt onset as well as strong spring winds in the eastern Beaufort Sea led to early ice retreat in this area (Steele et al., 2015). These winds were particularly strong in April 2015, but then they abated, so that while the resulting summer sea surface temperatures were higher than surrounding waters, they were only around 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than average near the coast. The Kara Sea was also unusually warm this year, while sea surface temperatures were generally lower than average in the Nordic seas.

What happened to the old ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas?

Figure 5a. The map shows Arctic sea ice age, in years, for the week of September 7 to 13, 2015. ||Credit: M. Tschudi, University of Colorado Boulder| High-resolution image

Figure 5a. The map shows Arctic sea ice age, in years, for the week of September 7 to 13, 2015.

Credit: M. Tschudi, University of Colorado Boulder
High-resolution image

ice survival graph

Figure 5b. The plot shows survival rates of first-year, second-year, and older ice, in percentage of area that survived.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Maps of ice age at the beginning of the melt season and at the time of the September minimum extent (Figure 5a) reveal that most of the old ice transported into the southern Beaufort and Chukchi seas melted out this summer. This resulted in a 31% depletion of the multiyear ice cover this summer for the Arctic as a whole, compared to only 12% in 2013 and 38% in 2012. There was also more first-year ice lost this summer than during the last two summers. Sixty-two percent of the winter first-year ice was lost. Overall, this was the third largest amount of first-year ice lost in a melt season, behind 2012 (73%) and 2007 (67%).

References

Steele, M., S. Dickinson, J. Zhang, and R. Lindsay. 2015. Seasonal ice loss in the Beaufort Sea: Toward synchrony and prediction, J. Geophys. Res., 120, doi:10.1002/2014JC010247.

Erratum

A reader alerted us that Figure 5a was mislabeled. Instead of Mid-March 2015, it should have been labeled September 2015. On October 8, 2015, we corrected the label and its caption.

Arctic sea ice reaches fourth lowest minimum

On September 11, Arctic sea ice reached its likely minimum extent for 2015. The minimum ice extent was the fourth lowest in the satellite record, and reinforces the long-term downward trend in Arctic ice extent. Sea ice extent will now begin its seasonal increase through autumn and winter. In the Antarctic, sea ice extent is average, a substantial contrast with recent years when Antarctic winter extents reached record high levels.

Please note that this is a preliminary announcement. Changing winds or late-season melt could still reduce the Arctic ice extent, as happened in 2005 and 2010. NSIDC scientists will release a full analysis of the Arctic melt season, and discuss the Antarctic winter sea ice growth, in early October.

Overview of conditions

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for September 11, 2015 was 4.41 million square kilometers (1.70 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for the day. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole.  Sea Ice Index data. About the data||Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|High-resolution image

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for September 11, 2015, was 4.41 million square kilometers (1.70 million square miles). The orange line shows the 1981 to 2010 average extent for the day. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

On September 11, 2015, sea ice extent dropped to 4.41 million square kilometers (1.70 million square miles), the fourth lowest minimum in the satellite record. This appears to be the lowest extent of the year. In response to the setting sun and falling temperatures, ice extent will now climb through autumn and winter. However, a shift in wind patterns or a period of late season melt could still push the ice extent lower.

The minimum extent was reached four days earlier than the 1981 to 2010 average minimum date of September 15. The extent ranked behind 2012 (lowest), 2007 (second lowest), and 2011 (third lowest). Moreover, the nine lowest extents in the satellite era have all occurred in the last nine years.

Both the Northern Sea Route, along the coast of Russia, and Roald Amundsen’s route through the Northwest Passage are open. How long they remain open depends on weather patterns and the amount of heat still present in the ocean mixed layer (about the top 50 feet of the ocean). The deeper and wider Northwest Passage route through Parry Channel, which consists of M’Clure Strait, Barrow Strait, and Lancaster Sound, still has some ice in it.

Conditions in context

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 14, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for last year and the three lowest ice extent years (2012, 2007, and 2011).

Figure 2a. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of September 14, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for last year and the three lowest ice extent years (2012, 2007, and 2011). 2015 is shown in blue, 2014 in green, 2012 in orange, 2011 in brown, and 2007 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

This year’s minimum was 1.02 million square kilometers (394,000 square miles) above the record minimum extent in the satellite era, which occurred on September 17, 2012, and 1.81 million square kilometers (699,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average minimum.

Figure 2b. This figure shows patterns of sea level pressure and air temperature at the 925 hPa level for the summers (June through August) of 2015 and for 2007, expressed as differences with respect to average conditions over the period 1981 to 2010.

Figure 2b. This figure shows patterns of sea level pressure and air temperature at the 925 hPa level for the summers (June through August) of 2015 and for 2007, expressed as differences from the 1981 to 2010 average. The patterns for 2015 contributed to low September extent, but were not as favorable for producing low extent as the patterns seen in 2007.

Credit: NOAA/ESRL Physical Sciences Division
High-resolution image

Research has shown that especially low September sea extent tends to occur in years when the summer atmospheric circulation over the central Arctic Ocean is dominated by high atmospheric pressure, or anticyclonic conditions. This is because anticyclonic conditions tend to bring relatively sunny and warm conditions, and a clockwise wind pattern promotes ice convergence, making for a more compact, and thus smaller ice cover. The best example of this pattern occurred during the summer of 2007, which had the second lowest September extent in the satellite record. Conversely, Septembers with high extent tend to occur when the atmospheric circulation over the central Arctic Ocean is more cyclonic (counterclockwise), meaning unusually low pressure at the surface. This pattern brings more clouds, lower temperatures, and winds that spread the ice over a larger area.

Viewed in this framework, the pattern of atmospheric circulation for summer 2015 as a whole (June through August) favored a low September extent. Sea level pressures were higher than average over the central Arctic Ocean, as well as over Greenland and the surrounding region. Pressures were below average over north-central Eurasia. This was associated with air temperatures at the 925 hPa level (about 3,000 feet above the surface) that were above average over much of the Arctic Ocean, especially along the coast of eastern Siberia, in the Laptev Sea, and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago extending to the pole. However, it was not nearly as favorable as the 2007 pattern, when the area of unusually high pressure was located further south and east (over the northern Beaufort Sea), and unusually low pressure extended along much of the coast of northern Eurasia. This led to a pattern of warm winds from the south over the East Siberian and Chukchi Seas, promoting strong melt and transport of ice away from the coast. For both 2015 and 2007, the summer pressure patterns led to winds directed down the Fram Strait, helping to transport ice out of the Arctic Ocean into the East Greenland Sea.

Varying distribution of ice in 2015 versus 2012

Figure 3. This image compares differences in ice-covered areas between September 11, 2015 and September 17, 2012, the record low minimum extent.

Figure 3. This image compares differences in ice-covered areas between September 11, 2015 and September 17, 2012, the record low minimum extent. Light blue shading indicates the region where ice occurred in both 2015 and 2012, while white and medium blue areas show ice cover unique to 2012 and to 2015, respectively. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
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While minimum extent was higher this year compared to 2012, there are many similarities in the spatial pattern of the ice cover. Both years had considerable ice loss in the Beaufort, Chukchi, and East Siberian seas, though this year the ice extent did not retreat as far north as in 2012. Both also show a tongue of ice extending further southward on the Siberian side of the Arctic. In 2012, the tongue extended toward the Laptev Sea. This year, the tongue is farther east, in the western part of the East Siberian Sea, and is related to thicker, older ice that did not melt completely. North of Svalbard and in the Kara Sea, sea ice extent was slightly higher this year than in 2012.

Previous minimum Arctic sea ice extents

Table 1.   Previous minimum Arctic sea ice extents
 YEAR MINIMUM ICE EXTENT DATE
IN MILLIONS OF SQUARE KILOMETERS IN MILLIONS OF SQUARE MILES
2006 5.77 2.28 September 17
2007 4.15 1.60 September 18
2008 4.59 1.77 September 20
2009 5.12 1.98 September 13
2010 4.61 1.78 September 21
2011 4.34 1.67 September 11
2012 3.39 1.31 September 17
2013 5.05 1.95 September 13
2014 5.03 1.94 September 17
2015 4.41 1.70 September 11
1979 to 2000 average 6.70 2.59 September 13
1981 to 2010 average 6.22 2.40 September 15

Ten lowest minimum Arctic sea ice extents (1981 to 2010 average)

Table 2.  Ten lowest minimum Arctic sea ice extents (1981 to 2010 average)
 RANK  YEAR MINIMUM ICE EXTENT DATE
IN MILLIONS OF SQUARE KILOMETERS IN MILLIONS OF SQUARE MILES
1 2012 3.39 1.31 September 17
2 2007 4.15 1.60 September 18
3 2011 4.34 1.67 September 11
4 2015 4.41 1.70 September 11
5 2008 4.59 1.77 September 20
6 2010 4.61 1.78 September 21
7 2014 5.03 1.94 September 17
8 2013 5.05 1.95 September 13
9 2009 5.12 1.98 September 13
10 2005 5.32 2.05 September 22

Note that the dates and extents of the minima have been re-calculated from what we posted in previous years. In March 2015, NSIDC made two revisions to Arctic Sea Ice Index extent values used in our analyses, to improve scientific accuracy. These changes do not significantly affect sea ice trends and year-to-year comparisons, but in some instances users may notice very small changes in values from the previous version of the data. First, calculations of ice extent near the North Pole were improved whenever a newer satellite orbited closer to the pole than older satellites in the series, by using a sensor-specific pole hole for the extent calculations. Second, the accuracy of ice detection near the ice edge was slightly improved by adopting an improved residual weather effect filter. Details on the changes are discussed in the Sea Ice Index documentation.

U.S. icebreaker reaches the North Pole

Figure 4. Scientists and the crew of U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy have their portrait taken at the North Pole on September 7, 2015.

Figure 4. Scientists and the crew of U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy have their portrait taken at the North Pole on September 7, 2015. The Healy reached the pole on September 5.

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall
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After four weeks at sea, the Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy reached the North Pole on September 5. The ship left Dutch Harbor on August 9 with about 145 people on board, including about fifty scientists. The Healy is a medium-duty icebreaker and in the years past would not have been suitable to navigate through thick ice floes to reach the pole. This is the first time that a U.S. ship has made a solo traverse of the North Pole. As clear evidence that the melt season was coming to a close, air temperatures were 21 degrees Fahrenheit (-6 degrees Celsius). The U.S. icebreaker’s capability is far behind that of Russia and other Arctic nations, and plans are ongoing for the U.S. to build a new polar-class icebreaking vessel.

Impact of sea ice convergence in 2013

Figure 5. These graphs show onshore ice drift during the summer of 2013.

Figure 5. These graphs show onshore ice drift during the summer of 2013. Due to ice convergence, an ice area in May (in red) is compressed by ~23% by the end of the summer (dashed line).

Credit: Ron Kwok, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
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Thick, deformed ice, made up of pressure ridges with deep keels, is formed when the sea ice cover is pushed against or converges on the coast. Sea ice convergence along the coasts of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago is a source of the thickest ice (tens of meters) in the Arctic Ocean. The thicker ice is more likely to survive the summer to form the Arctic Ocean’s perennial ice cover. A new paper by Ron Kwok at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory shows that in summer of 2013, strong wind-driven onshore ice drift was forced by the relative location of high- and low- pressure centers over the Arctic Ocean (see Figure 5). A sampled ice parcel (in red) shows an area compression of 23% between May and October; the dashes indicate its area by end of summer. This is equivalent to an increase in thickness of ~30% within that area. If this thicker ice were transported to areas of high melt rates (like that in the southern Beaufort), it would have an impact on summer ice coverage. The presence of a band of sea ice that survived a large part of the summer in 2015, is likely due to the thicker ice that formed in this region.

Reference

Kwok, R. 2015. Sea ice convergence along the Arctic coasts of Greenland and the Canadian Arctic Archipelago: Variability and extremes (1992–2014). Geophysical Research Letters, (Accepted) doi:10.1002/2015GL065462.

Steady decline, seasonal minimum approaching

August saw a remarkably steady decline in Arctic sea ice extent, at a rate slightly faster than the long-term average. Forecasts show that this year’s minimum sea ice extent, which typically occurs in mid to late September, is likely to be the third or fourth lowest in the satellite record. All four of the lowest extents have occurred since 2007. In mid-August, Antarctic sea ice extent began to trend below the 1981 to 2010 average for the first time since November 2011.

Overview of conditions

sea ice extent map

Figure 1. Arctic sea ice extent for August 2015 was 5.61 million square kilometers (2.16 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1981 to 2010 median extent for that month. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Average sea ice extent for August 2015 was 5.61 million square kilometers (2.16 million square miles), the fourth lowest August extent in the satellite record. This is 1.61 million square kilometers (621,000 square miles) below the 1981 to 2010 average for the month, and 900,000 square kilometers (350,000 square miles) above the record low for August, set in 2012.

The rapid pace of daily ice loss seen in late July 2015 slowed somewhat in August. The pace increased slightly toward the end of the month, so that by August 31 Arctic sea ice extent was only slightly greater than on the same date in 2007 and 2011. The ice is currently tracking lower than two standard deviations below the 1981 to 2010 long-term average.

Sea ice extent remains below average in nearly every sector except for Baffin Bay and Hudson Bay, where some ice persists in sheltered coastal areas. A striking feature of the late 2015 melt season are the extensive regions of low-concentration ice (less than 70% ice cover) in the Beaufort Sea. A few patches of multi-year sea ice surrounded by open water remain in the central Beaufort Sea.

Conditions in context

sea ice extent graph

Figure 2. The graph above shows Arctic sea ice extent as of August 31, 2015, along with daily ice extent data for four previous years. 2015 is shown in blue, 2014 in green, 2013 in orange, 2012 in brown, and 2011 in purple. The 1981 to 2010 average is in dark gray. The gray area around the average line shows the two standard deviation range of the data. Sea Ice Index data.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
High-resolution image

Ice loss rates were quite steady through most of the month of August. Sea ice loss for August averaged 75,100 square kilometers per day (29,000 square miles), compared to the long-term 1981 to 2010 average value of 57,300 square kilometers per day (22,100 square miles per day), and a rate of 89,500 square kilometers per day for 2012 (34,500 square miles per day).

Cool conditions prevailed in the East Siberian, Chukchi, and western Beaufort seas, where air temperatures at the 925 millibar level were 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius (3 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) below average. However, a broad region of higher-than-average temperatures extended from Norway to the North Pole, 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius (3 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit) above average. Sea level pressures were up to 10 millibars above average over the central Arctic Ocean, paired with slightly below average values in north-central Siberia, similar to the dipole-like pattern seen for July. The Arctic Oscillation was in its negative phase for most of the month, again similar to July.

August 2015 compared to previous years

trend graph

Figure 3. Monthly August ice extent for 1979 to 2015 shows a decline of 10.3% per decade.

Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center
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Arctic sea ice extent averaged for August 2015 was the fourth lowest in the satellite data record. Through 2015, the linear rate of decline for August extent is 10.3% per decade.

 

Forecasting the minimum

||Credit: RESEARCHER'S NAME/ORGANIZATION *or * National Snow and Ice Data Center|  High-resolution image

Figure 4. The graph shows ice extent forecasts, based on ice extent as observed on August 31, 2015 and past years’ observed rates for selected years.

Credit: W. Meier, NASA Goddard Cryospheric Sciences Lab
High-resolution image

One way of estimating the upcoming seasonal minimum in ice extent is to extrapolate from the current extent, using previous years’ rates of daily sea ice loss. Assuming that past years’ daily rates of change indicate the range of ice loss that can be expected this year, this method gives an envelope of possible minimum extents for the September seasonal minimum. However, it is possible to have unprecedented loss rates, either slow or fast.

Starting with the ice extent observed on August 31 and then applying 2006 loss rates, the slowest rate in recent years, results in the highest extrapolated minimum for 2015 of 4.50 million square kilometers (1.74 million square miles), and a September monthly average extent of 4.59 million square kilometers (1.77 million square miles). The lowest daily minimum comes from using the 2010 pace, yielding an estimated 4.12 million square kilometers (1.67 million square miles) for the daily minimum, and a September monthly average extent of 4.33 million square kilometers (1.67 million square miles).

Using an average rate of ice loss from the most recent ten years gives a one-day minimum extent of 4.38 ± 0.11 million square kilometers (1.79 million square miles), and a September monthly average of 4.49 ± 0.09. As of August 31, the 5-day running daily average extent is 4.72 million square kilometers. If no further retreat occurred, 2015 would already be the sixth lowest daily ice extent in the satellite record.

The forecast places the upcoming daily sea ice minimum between third and fourth lowest, with fourth more likely. There is still a possibility that 2015 extent will be lower than 4.3 million square kilometers, the third lowest sea ice extent, surpassing the 2011 sea ice extent minimum, and a small chance of surpassing 2007, resulting in the second-lowest daily minimum. This assumes that we continue to have sea ice loss rates at least as fast as those of 2010. This was indeed the case for the final ten days of August 2015.

Northwest Passage icy; Northern Sea Route remains open

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Figure 5. Click on the image to view an animation of sea ice concentration north of Canada for August 23 to September 1, 2015.

Credit: Canadian Ice Service Daily and Regional Ice Charts
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The southerly route through the Northwest Passage is open. The passage was discovered during 1903 to 1906 by Roald Amundsen, who made the first transit of the passage from Baffin Bay to the Beaufort Sea. This route passes south of Prince of Wales Island and Victoria Island before entering the Beaufort Sea south of Banks Island. Data from the AMSR-2 satellite, which uses passive microwave emission, suggests that this path is ice-free. The higher-resolution Multisensor Analyzed Sea Ice Extent (MASIE) product, based on several data sources and human interpretation, shows only a few areas of low-concentration ice. The broader and deeper passage through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, between Lancaster Sound, Parry Channel, and McClure Strait, is still obstructed by ice, but at the end of August ice blocked only a short portion near Victoria Island. Before drawing conclusions about navigability, however, it is important to check with the operational services such as the National Ice Center (NIC) or the Canadian Ice Service (CIS). The Northern Sea Route, north of the European Russian and Siberian coasts, has remained largely clear of ice for the entire month.

Warm surface water near Alaska and the Kara Sea

Figure 6. The map shows average ocean sea surface temperature (SST) and sea ice concentration for August 30, 2015. SST is measured by satellites using thermal emission sensors (a global product, adjusted by comparison with ship and buoy data). Sea ice concentration is derived from NSIDC’s sea ice concentration near-real-time product. Also shown are drifting buoy temperatures at 2.5 meters depth in the ocean (about 8 feet deep: colored circles); gray circles indicates that temperature data from the buoys is not available.

Credit: M. Steele, Polar Science Center/University of Washington
High-resolution image

Strong winds from the east in spring of this year opened the ice pack in the eastern Beaufort Sea quite early, allowing early warming of the ocean surface. However, the winds shifted in later spring, forcing the warmed water layer against the North American mainland rather than dispersing it further into the Arctic Ocean. Sea surface temperatures (SSTs) were high as of late August 2015 in the Beaufort, Chukchi, and Laptev Seas, as well as in Baffin Bay and the Kara and northern Barents seas.

The remaining area of low concentration ice in the Beaufort Sea has large pockets of warming open water. This area is likely to melt out by the September ice minimum; however, maximum SSTs in this region will probably not be especially high (currently about 2.5 degrees Celsius, or 5 degrees Fahrenheit above the freezing point of seawater) owing to how late we are in the melt season.

NASA airborne mission flies over sea ice in 2015 to support ICESat-2

images from air campaign

Figure 7. The map at left shows flight tracks flown by NASA to evaluate laser reflection characteristics over sea ice and land ice. The image at top right shows sea ice with melt ponds in the Lincoln Sea. The photo at bottom right shows the view from the aircraft window of moderately loose pack in the area.

Credit: K. Brunt/NASA
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In support of the upcoming Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) mission, NASA recently deployed two instrumented aircraft to Thule Air Force Base, Greenland (near Qaanaaq) to collect data for the development of software to process the satellite data. Instrumentation for the three-week campaign (July 28 to August 19) included a laser altimeter called SIMPL and an imaging spectrometer called AVIRIS-NG. ICESat-2 is a satellite-borne laser altimetry mission that uses a new approach to space-borne determination of surface elevation, based on a high measurement rate (10,000 times per second), multiple ground tracks of laser data, and closely spaced orbital tracks to provide more detailed mapping. Specific science goals of the airborne campaign include assessing how melting ice surfaces and snow-grain-size variability affect the surface return of green-wavelength light (the color of the ICESat-2 lasers).

Over sea ice, the aircraft data provide important information on sea ice freeboard (height of flotation) and snow cover on sea ice. Both are important parameters for correcting satellite measurements of sea ice thickness. Of the more than thirty-five science flight hours of data collected based out of Thule, four flights targeted sea ice in the vicinity of Nares Strait, where loose pack ice, covered in surface melt ponds, was found. These data will be available on the NASA ICESat-2 Web site later in the year.